Camping at Tällberg – Episode 2: A Bad Problem Problem is Actually Much Worse

Siljan_2009_27JuneIt’s morning. I had a wonderful, quiet time by the Lake, sleeping, writing, playing guitar. (The photo was taken just after midnight, from my tentsite.)

But now I walk (late) into the big tent of the Tällberg Forum. Global reality hits me like a desert wind. “The problem that we already thought was bad is actually much worse.” “The causes become the consequences, and the consequences become the causes.” “I want to be optimistic, but the situation really is quite pessimistic.”

Johan Rockström is leading a panel discussion on climate change. V. Ramanathan of Scripps Instituteconfirms what I’ve been reading, and trying to tell people, for several years now: global warming is already much worse than we thought, because the heat inputs from the sun have been so reduced by particulates in the atmosphere, so-called “global dimming.” He had calculated that, given the heat-trapping effects of greenhouse gases, global temperatures should already have risen 2.5 degrees. Why haven’t they? All those particulates in the atmosphere are “like glitter on the blanket of greenhouse gases.” They reflect solar radiation back into space. Wash the air of those particulates, and temperatures would rise dramatically. (We saw this happen already in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States. Planes stopped flying, people stayed home, the skies cleared … and the overall temperature in North America rose by a one degree Celsius in only three days.)

That’s what “a bad problem is actually much worse” means.

Rockström has steered them over to thoughts on the deep interconnections, and of course, this makes the picture even bleaker, as we learn about the acidification of the oceans, nitrogen loading, etc. The panel also includes Sybil Seitzinger, director of the International Geosphere-Biosphere Program: she deconstructs the beautiful meal served for dinner last night, and its cost in terms of nitrogen, water, land degradation, and greenhouse gases. Also Youba Sokona, who heads the Observatory of the Sahara and the Sahel: his quote was the one about causes and consequences, as he sees climate stress causing migration causing land stress causing … etc. etc.

Ramanathan, it turns out, is the optimist in this group. “We don’t want to bring any more bad news and paralyze people. But world leaders have still not [grasped] the urgency of the situation,” says Ramanathan. He talks of his personal commitment to find solutions, e.g. about conversions from wood to biogas for cooking, and all its positive impacts on health, women, global warming, and poverty. He tells us this in response to Rockström’s reflection on the changing role of science: “Science is hesitating in communicating the latest findings,” says Johan, “because it’s so depressing.”

Johan puts a picture of Frodo, from the Lord of the Rings, up on the big screen. Science has been suffering, he says, from the “Frodo Syndrome.” The planet itself is the “one ring” that rules it all. But this knowledge of the planet’s is a tremendous weight for the scientists to carry, and like Frodo, they have often preferred to be invisible. They have to come out, be more visible, and speak for what is necessary if we are to avoid the cascading effects of system collapse.

The session ends with a short dialogue with an economist, Klas Eklund of a large Swedish Bank. Can there be a response to Seitzinger’s recently expressed dream, of a truly integrated global model, with social and physical science both collaborating to understand human/planet interactions and future scenarios more completely? Eklund things so, and says, “There should be a Rockström Report” (like the Stern report). “No, there should be an Eklund Report,” says Rockström, that reimagines contemporary economics in a way that moves us beyond the fascination with growth. No, we economists just want to think about economic factors, says Eklund, and incentives and such. “So, we work together,” says Rockström, and ends the show.


Outside, the day is fine, fine, fine. Siljan glimmers blue. I walk with Johan to our next destination, a “Reality Check” session on global water. We discuss the generally difficult economics around sustainability work in these days. The same topic is coming up over and over again: many of us are experiencing that we and our colleagues have never been in greater demand, never had more of a sense that our work was timely, influential, needed. The impact of the various models, studies, training programs, reports, etc. generated by sustainability researchers and practitioners is rising dramatically.

At the same time, the money to do this kind of work has been drying up in some regions, and rather suddenly. Ironically, mostly the regions in questions are the so-called “rich” world, not the “developing ” world. Government budget cut-backs. Companies delaying or canceling initiatives. Foundations reeling from the shrinkage of their endowments. I’ve talked to several colleagues whose institutions (private companies, non-profits, institutes, whatever) are going through painful lay-offs. I’ve even heard of leading global experts, truly key people in their fields, whose work is quite essential and extremely sought after now by top political people, are scrambling for a few thousand dollars just to keep going, their personal economies and business economies both heading for their own “tipping points.”

Researchers and consultants having trouble getting paid to do the work that right now desperately needs to get done is, compared to the global challenges we face and the suffering of people already affected by things like climate change and water scarcity, a veritable “drop in the bucket.” And yet … aren’t we in danger of missing, as a world, a key leverage point, a key moment of opportunity? Isn’t sustainability expertise the one thing we need more of in a financial crisis driven by unsustainable behavior?


Speaking of things drying up … the Minster for Water and Irrigation of Keyna, Charity Ngilu, has now opened this “Reality Check” session on the global water crisis. “Water stress” is defined as having less than 1500 cubic meters per person per year. Kenya has just over 600, and is expected to have only 225 by 2025. “Communities are fighting over water,” she tells us, and provides moving stories as well to illustrate that from her own country. (Water rationing is already a reality in Nairobi, for example.) And she’s worried about the rising risk of international conflict over water.

The fighting and the conflict will only increase, if we do not have the sort of super-green-blue revolution then described by Johan Rockström. I can’t possibly capture the flow of data here — the river of information is flowing too fast — but it is eye-opening. In brief, we have enough water to feed 8 billion by 2050, but only if we completely reorganize global water management. Rain water is central to agriculture (irrigation is really a small part of global water use), and agriculture is the lion’s share of water use globally. So we have to rethink how we manage the rain that comes to the land, capture more of it for growing our crops … just when climate change is disrupting rainfall. And in the world’s more vulnerable regions. To illustrate the difference between stable ground flow and storm flow — which is what climate change is creating more of — he describes chocolate milkshakes running down hillsides … and carrying the soil with them.

Magda Hafny, an expert in water use ethics from Egypt, then takes us to a different level: values, judgments. How we decide, regarding water use. These are ethical questions in addition to scientific and technical and economic ones, and Jakob Granit of the Stockholm International Water Institute (and formerly of the World Bank) re-emphasizes the same message. He also puts more of a management perspective on it. He expands further on the opportunities and challenges (e.g., Africa has only developed 7% of its hydropower resources, Sweden has developed 80%; but, the development is creating exponentially more “dead zones” in the coastal zones of the world, from nutrient run-off.


As I stare off into Siljan’s deep blue, the conversation, a bit lulled now, is moving into questions. There is an awful lot of beautiful water out there in that lake. The colors shimmering on it last night, in the midnight sun of midsummer, were unreal, dream-like.

I’m called out of my reverie by a question from a woman who lives in Nigeria. “How can we do something practical about this?” she says. “Where I live, fertilizer is like gold. People who have it, have power. I don’t know what to do.” Johan peps her up with talk of integrating urban sanitation systems with the production of organic fertilizer, as they do in Mexico City now (translation for my young children: we can use human poop and pee to help grow more food).

Soon we’ll move into a series of workshops on the Nile Basin as a global case study in managing a big, common resource. I’ll be writing less about that, because I have to manage the sessions. But I’ll keep the flow of words from Tällberg — this writing helps me process the vast flood of incoming information — coming as steady as I can.

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